The private buyer is dying off [exclamation point]

That´s the tabloid-style scare headline for this topic. The sensible, broadsheet-style headline would be “Fleet buyers to dominate in car market”.

Not enough people want this sort of thing. 1978 Opel Senator´s rich ambience.
Not enough people want this sort of thing. 1978 Opel Senator´s rich ambience.

According to Automotive News (who posted this story on Saturday, Jan 10th – do they never rest?) Renault are to bank on fleet sales as the proportion of private customers decreases relative to corporate ones: “Renault hopes its new Espace will appeal to business customers as family buyers increasingly shun minivans”. Furthermore, AN reports that “Jamel Taganza, an analyst for Inovev, said fleet customers now represent the majority of potential buyers of midsize vehicles in Europe: ‘With the exception of Italy, the shift to fleet sales is a European-wide trend,’ he said”.

Nobody will be able to buy it in this colour so why do they show the car covered in paint of this hue? 2014 Renault Espace concept car
Nobody will be able to buy it in this colour so why do they show the car covered in paint of this hue? 2014 Renault Espace concept car

For quite some time I´ve been railing against the dull and limited range of colours for car interiors. Only last night I was admiring the mid-blue velour interior of a 1995 Lancia Kappa  but the kids would destroy it. Such colours are a thing of the past; the Jaguar X-type had blue velour though, another reason to love it. Why are nice colours extinct? Among the reasons I thought of to explain this was that we live in a conservative period. And that´s true – cool colours are dominant in homes and furnishings as well as in automotive interiors, reflecting the anxiety of our times and the politically rightward shift that has been underway since 1979. But, more prosaically, the manufacturers are not going to prepare interesting and personal colour choices if the take-up is mostly dominated by corporate buyers looking for something inoffensive to sell three years down the line.

1982 Opel Rekord
1982 Opel Rekord

The other question raised by this article is whether the change in the ratio of private to fleet buyers is due to a decrease in absolute numbers of private buyers or an increase in absolute numbers of fleet buyers or is the change relative.  If it is due to fewer private buyers in absolute terms then does this mean ordinary people are not interested in getting a new car? We have, of course, reached peak car in Europe so I would hazard that the number of private buyers is not changing so much as the number of corporate buyers. That means they are the ones responsible for the variation in demand.

1974 CX interior
1974 CX interior

If fleet sales are so important, one might wonder whether automotive journalists are wasting their breath in some market sectors. Most car reviews are written on the assumption that a private person will make a personal choice when buying their car. Characteristics such as performance and handling tend to be the main emotional factors that attract a buyer, along with the styling. For a fleet buyer the factors are more likely to be derivative characteristics such as resale value which is driven by how attractive the car is to tight-fisted second-hand buyers; they are also interested in insurance and maintenance costs.  And then they are interested in fuel economy too. Apart from the last one, most of these factors are about second-guessing what someone else will think. This is a long way from the decision-making of the individual who can weigh up quantitative factors against qualitative ones e.g. “I don´t care if I lose €400 on the resale, I want a yellow car with an orange interior” and “I don´t care if I lose €500 on the resale if it means I get a more responsive engine”. And so on.

Nice colour: 1997 Honda Insight
Nice colour: 1997 Honda Insight

The final impact of all this, in the abstract, is that the large majority of cars are sold to customers who are considering the next owner and not themselves only. That would be the fleet buyers and also the kind of ghastly person who opts for a grey over grey car because that´ll be easier to sell. At a trivial level this explains nicely the death of ivy green, burnt orange, brown and red interiors; it explains the reduction of exterior colour palettes to a set of greys, dark reds and blues; and I suppose it explains the extent to which customers let minor differences in resale value result in massive differences in sales figures for cars such as the Citroen C6 and Lancia Thesis.

It´s no coincidence a Google search of an Audi A4 throws up cars with this range of colours.
It´s no coincidence a Google search of an Audi A4 throws up cars with this range of colours.

Without wanting to get lost in sociology and politics, the conservatism of our times and the decline of the private buyer´s importance in the market may not be unrelated. Would it be possible that our collective insecurity which is a function of globalisation and its shredding-effect on the social safety  net mean people don´t feel like buying a car, let alone one with zany colours? So, in a very particular way, the extinction of the bright car colour is a kind of canary in the mine, telling us that we are now more and more insecure and the rapidity and unpredictability of the market-liberal world is making us feel less and less optimistic about things? Paradoxically, while people are voting in their self-interest and voting for lower taxes and a smaller state, the effect is that we are collectively feeling worse. And that´s why we don´t want to shell out for a car, let alone one trimmed in cheerful caramel cloth with a bright green exterior.

1975 Audi colour range. The search term was "1975 Audi 80". This was what was available back then.
1975 Audi colour range. The search term was “1975 Audi 80”. This was what was available back then.

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

12 thoughts on “The private buyer is dying off [exclamation point]”

  1. With regards fleet buyers versus private buyers: isn’t it just a case that more and more people get access to fleet deals in their work place? So in effect it’s the same customers buying differently, and planning to change cars every 3 years – hence the importance of resale value.

    1. Not necessarily, but in any case people know what’s more likely to sell on the second hand market.

    2. My understanding is that they specify the fleet cars. The private buyers who pigiggy-back on the fleet deal should be able to spec their own vehicle in theory.
      But maybe they are constrained by the pre-selection made by the fleet buyers – or they are penalised on the terms of their contract for making residuals-wrecking choices?

  2. Replying to Sam: that´s my supposition. It seems quite likely that fleet managers offer a car with a set range of specifications with the highest probable residuals. That probably means a few engine choices (never a V6 if its a volume brand like Ford or Vauxhall) and some limited trims.
    It would be a foolhardy manager who let an employee ask for an odd colour but then again, there are no odd colours now, are there? I had a look at BMW´s website and found that green and orange and the brighter blues were all absent from the colour range. There were six variants of black or grey and five variants of white and off white. The other colours were dark red and a dark blue. One of the grey/black colours may be the dark brown metallic they are offering.

  3. I suppose that car ownership figures less on people’s to-do lists than it used to and, in many ways, that is a good thing. Cars don’t offer ‘freedom’ in the way they once did, so I guess that they are not seen as vehicles for ‘freedom of expression’ by many. In my meandering and drawn out attempts to replace my Audi (bright blue insert seats) with something else, I keep coming up against these dour interiors. Even on the Nissan Cube, which I’d expect to offer a vibrant interior, I found only one advertised with a browny velour upholstery which, although too reminiscent of the cheesy 70s for my liking, was infinitely preferable to the greys and charcoals of most the others.

    The UK is particularly reticent regarding colour, I think we’ve never been confident with it really, fearing people’s laughter. Travelling in Europe I come across cars in colour options that I never see at home. Sometimes they aren’t even offered but, in other instances, a look at the brochure shows they are, but no-one seems to want them.

    Taking the point about insecurity further, once upon a time innate conservatism meant people were disinclined to stand-out in public. Now we live in a world where, even if there isn’t more violence overall, it is often geographically closer to our selves, maybe there is a feeling that anonymity is best.

  4. The impact of fleet purchase and company car choices on colour and trim availability has, I feel, a number of complex causes, but an impact it surely has. Most maufacturers offer shades rather than colours, if you get my drift. Moreover, it seems that this is more prevalent with the German/ premium brands, and so it’s difficult to disentangle whether it’s that end-users like conservative colours with their conservative cars, or it’s the brands second guessing things, or company purchasing departments calling the shots. Citroen has tried to be a bit different with it’s colour and trim choices for the Cactus, but I am already concerned that this car is going to be a commercial flop – it’s too outre for the average prospective buyer in the UK, I think, and not actually good enough to shine through for those that dare to give it a test drive. Such failures, if they happen, in spite of an amazingly sympathetic wave of support from the press, will drive more nails in the coffin of marques offering real colour choice.

    I recall with affection the strong primary colours that FIAT offered in the early 90s on cars such as the Coupe (I say a lovely blue one the other day – stunning!), the Cinquecento (I had a Broom Yellow example when it first arrived int he UK), and Barchetta. These were all “flat” not metallic, and so free of extra charge. Those were indeed the days!

  5. I can see Sean´s point about people being reticent to show off. That´s an interesting paradox of a what is supposed to be a very individualistic culture, ours. You´d think people might be a little more daring when it came to the interior, even if they chose a neutral hue for the exterior.
    About the German brands, they too once offered bright colours. I can recall BMWs in chrome yellow and bright green, for example. And my Audi screen shot shows the 80 in all sorts of nice oranges. I feel the dislike of bright colours (and decoration generally) might go back to what Cliff Moughtin referred to as John Ruskin´s priggish dislike of the decorative. He was a major influence on the turn away from the florid styles of the Victorian era. In one passage he pours scorn on the decorative signs of shopkeepers. Now we have quite uniform signs made using plastic sheets and big printers and they look depressing. But they are oh, so sensibly economical.

  6. There’s another thing. In the UK (at least) a man who cares too much about colour is often viewed with suspicion. You’d think in more enlightened (so they tell me) times this would have changed, but how much? Certainly (as Richard points out), the majority of those macho types in the motoring press will either sneer at a distinctive colour or, at best, give it grudging and qualified approval.

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